New tax break for Ger­mans re­turn­ing Nazi-looted art

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Holocaust Remembrance - JAN­ICE ARNOLD jarnold@thecjn.ca, MONTREAL

Ger­man cit­i­zens who resti­tute art­works de­spoiled by the Nazis from Max Stern can now re­ceive a tax re­ceipt rec­og­nized by the Ger­man gov­ern­ment.

Ef­fec­tive as of the be­gin­ning of 2017, re­ceipts for the full mar­ket value of the art may be is­sued by the Ger­man Friends of the He­brew Univer­sity of Jerusalem to in­di­vid­u­als who re­lin­quish works claimed by the Max Stern Art Resti­tu­tion Project, which is man­aged by Con­cor­dia Univer­sity.

This ar­range­ment, be­tween the Stern es­tate and Ger­man au­thor­i­ties, has been in the mak­ing for sev­eral years and is be­lieved to un­prece­dented in the world.

The goal is to prag­mat­i­cally ad­dress the vex­ing prob­lem of fi­nally see­ing jus­tice done for the right­ful heirs of Nazi-looted cul­tural prop­erty, said Clarence Ep­stein, Con­cor­dia’s se­nior di­rec­tor of ur­ban and cul­tural af­fairs, who has over­seen the not-for-profit Stern project since its launch in 2002.

The tax break was con­ceived by the project as an in­cen­tive for Ger­mans who, af­ter the Nazi pe­riod and in good faith, un­wit­tingly ac­quired art that was plun­dered from Stern or sub­ject to forced sale.

Ep­stein calls it “a fair and just so­lu­tion” that will “soften the blow” of those giv­ing up Stern art, a loss that may be many thou­sands of dol­lars. The Ger­man Friends, a Ber­lin-based char­ity, will ac­cept works on be­half of the Max and Iris Stern Foun­da­tion and of­fer re­ceipts for the do­na­tion.

Be­fore World War II, the Jewish Stern owned an art gallery in Düs­sel­dorf and had amassed a valu­able col­lec­tion.

The heirs of his looted art are, ac­cord­ing to his wishes, He­brew Univer­sity, Con­cor­dia and Mcgill Univer­sity. Stern, who for decades owned the land­mark Do­min­ion Gallery on Sher­brooke Street, died in 1987. He and his wife had no chil­dren.

Ex­tend­ing tax re­lief is recog­ni­tion that to­day’s pos­ses­sors – as the project refers to them, rather than own­ers – typ­i­cally do not know that the art has a tainted his­tory, said Ep­stein.

Seven of the 15 paint­ings the project has re­cov­ered were found in Ger­many, all but two from in­di­vid­u­als. The lat­est are two Dutch Old Mas­ter paint­ings that were handed over in a cer­e­mony at the Cana­dian em­bassy in Ber­lin in De­cem­ber.

It is be­lieved the pre­pon­der­ance of the Stern art is in Ger­many, with some of it cir­cu­lat­ing on the art mar­ket. How­ever, the project has only lo­cated about 10 per cent of the hun­dreds of works that are still un­re­cov­ered.

So far no re­ceipts have been is­sued or sought, said Ep­stein, but he said the project will be mak­ing a num­ber of claims in Ger­many this year and the in­cen­tive may have an ef­fect on their out­come. The of­fer is not retroac­tive. Although dis­cus­sions be­tween the es­tate and Ger­man gov­ern­ment dragged on, Ep­stein said the de­lay was not due to op­po­si­tion but rather to “ad­min­is­tra­tive and bu­reau­cratic” con­sid­er­a­tions in re­struc­tur­ing the tax code.

No one has ap­par­ently ob­jected that this ar­range­ment could com­pen­sate peo­ple who did not con­duct due dili­gence be­fore ac­quir­ing the art. All the known Stern art is listed with the Art Loss Reg­is­ter, an international data­base, and other re­sources. It’s un­clear whether those who in­her­ited works from peo­ple who ob­tained them know­ing they were Nazi-looted could ben­e­fit.

Stern lost an es­ti­mated 400 paint­ings dur­ing the Nazi era. More than 200 of them were liq­ui­dated un­der duress at the Lem­pertz auc­tion house in Cologne in 1937. It’s be­lieved that Stern did not re­ceive any­thing from the sale, where prices were well be­low worth. Shortly af­ter, he fled to Paris and then Lon­don.

The Stern project is unique in the world in its scope and re­lent­less pur­suit in­volv­ing international col­lab­o­ra­tion with re­searchers, art trade pro­fes­sion­als and, in­creas­ingly, law en­force­ment agen­cies, such as In­ter­pol, and those in Ger­many, the United States and Canada.

“The project’s aim is not mon­e­tary, but rather moral and ed­u­ca­tional,” Ep­stein said – that is, fur­ther­ing un­der­stand­ing that resti­tu­tion is just.

Fif­teen years on, track­ing down and re­cov­er­ing Stern art re­mains a chal­lenge. Ger­many’s 30-year statute of lim­i­ta­tions on stolen prop­erty doesn’t make ex­cep­tions for Nazi-spo­li­ated art, mean­ing such works can be can held or sold legally.

Prov­ing a claim, es­pe­cially on a work that has changed hands sev­eral times, is dif­fi­cult, as pa­per trails back to the 1930s or 1940s can’t al­ways be found, Ep­stein said.

What has im­proved with time is the at­ti­tude of Ger­man auc­tion houses. They in­creas­ingly rec­og­nize their re­spon­si­bil­ity to ver­ify the his­to­ries of the art con­signed to them and are more co-op­er­a­tive with the Stern project, Ep­stein said.

Two paint­ings were resti­tuted to the Max and Iris Stern Foun­da­tion in a cer­e­mony at the Cana­dian Em­bassy in Ber­lin last month.

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